Disciple-Making with Mercenary Love

“Gold, Silver, Precious Stones"? Or “Wood, Hay, or Straw"?

The Calling of Peter and Andrew by Caravaggio (1603-1606)

What is needed in these times to ignite a “new evangelization” that will return zeal and vigor to our Catholic parishes and dioceses? We certainly are in need of personal and ecclesial renewal that is faithful to our Lord, and to His call to us, that is authentic, and deep, and holy. We certainly have many books and programs now circulating through the Church1 that promise such renewal!

On a personal note, my wife and I have been involved in some of these programs or books, at the parish-level. These experiences have shown me a consistent pattern in parish responses to such renewal programs: there is initial apparent success, followed by declining interest and participation, leading to a quiet death of the program, and a return to parish life as it was, and was not, before. Reflecting upon the recurring pattern, I begin to see some fatal flaws in these programs. Considering the rough, and sometimes resistant, fields of some parishes, we ought to have predicted little lasting fruit. I’ve concluded that we need a better plan. We have been trying to build (1) using plans that are incomplete, (2) with materials inadequate to the task, and besides that, (3) upon sand. I will try to discuss each of those three very problematic obstacles to an authentic and lasting renewal in our parishes.

Problem 1: An incomplete, thus erroneous, spirituality
The crucially important problem as I see it with contemporary renewal programs is that they do not recognize the character and needs of the interior life of grace. They do not include the very old—traditional and normative—path of the development of a Christian disciple. To be explicit: they do not include or recognize that the interior spiritual life of a person in Christ is intended to grow in a progressing process through specific stages, separated by specific spiritual crises.2

We are intended to grow in Christ, beginning with (a first) Conversion into Christ, with Baptism, then

  1. A Purgative Stage of the Beginner, leading to
    — a Second Conversion: the Dark Night of the Senses, leading to
  2. An Illuminative Stage of the Proficient, leading to
    — a Third Conversion: the Dark Night of the Spirit, leading to
  3. A Unitive Stage of the Perfect.

The problem with the modern parish programs listed below (in footnote 1) is that they implicitly presume that there is one process of discipleship—simple, continuous, and linear—from conversion to death. This simplistic “path” includes all believers—the “babes in Christ” as well as the “mature” in Him (1 Cor 3), the “children” as well as the “young men” as well as the “elders” (1 Jn 2)—in the one simple and linear path to holiness in Christ, to our vocation. In natural life, this would imagine that a “young man”—a teenager, an adolescent—is no more, nor less, than a larger and older child. And a mature adult is simply a bigger and even older child. No, maturation is not that simple, nor linear and continuous—neither natural maturation nor supernatural, spiritual maturation. Maturation, both natural and supernatural, both physical and spiritual, is a process of stages of profound interior (and exterior) development separated by discontinuities!

Thomas Aquinas dealt with this issue a very long time ago. He saw the growth of life in Christ in terms of holy charity, and argued for the truth of the three stages—and argued against the (old) error of one long continuous line of many “degrees”— of many small incremental steps in the interior life.3

Article 9. Whether charity is rightly distinguished into three degrees, beginning, progress, and perfection?

  • Objection 1. It would seem unfitting to distinguish three degrees of charity, beginning, progress, and perfection. For there are many degrees between the beginning of charity and its ultimate perfection. Therefore, it is not right to put only one.
  • Objection 2. Further, charity begins to progress as soon as it begins to be. Therefore we ought not to distinguish between charity as progressing and as beginning.
  • Objection 3. Further, in this world, however perfect a man’s charity may be, it can increase, as stated above (Article 7). Now for charity to increase is to progress. Therefore, perfect charity ought not to be distinguished from progressing charity. So the aforesaid degrees are unsuitably assigned to charity.

On the contrary, Augustine says (In prim. canon. Joan. Tract. v): “As soon as charity is born, it takes food,” which refers to beginners, “after taking food, it waxes strong,” which refers to those who are progressing, “and when it has become strong it is perfected,” which refers to the perfect. Therefore, there are three degrees of charity.

I answer that the spiritual increase of charity may be considered in respect of a certain likeness to the growth of the human body. For although this latter growth may be divided into many parts, yet it has certain fixed divisions according to those particular actions or pursuits to which man is brought by this same growth. Thus, we speak of a man being an infant until he has the use of reason, after which we distinguish another state of man wherein he begins to speak, and to use his reason, while there is again a third state, that of puberty, when he begins to acquire the power of generation, and so on, until he arrives at perfection.

In like manner, the divers degrees of charity are distinguished according to the different pursuits to which man is brought by the increase of charity.

For at first, it is incumbent on man to occupy himself chiefly with avoiding sin and resisting his concupiscences, which move him in opposition to charity—this concerns beginners, in whom charity has to be fed or fostered lest it be destroyed.

In the second place, man’s chief pursuit is to aim at progress in goodness, and this is the pursuit of the proficient, whose chief aim is to strengthen their charity by adding to it;

While man’s third pursuit is to aim chiefly at union with, and enjoyment of, God—this belongs to the perfect who “desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.”

It is helpful to see God’s consistency! St. Thomas also pointed out the correlations of the stages of spiritual, interior life with the stages of natural, physical / intellectual / emotional / life. To put this into a table:

Natural Life
Development of physical/mental/emotional life
Supernatural Life
Development of the interior, spiritual life of grace
Crucial Entry into childhood: age of reason 1st Conversion: Baptism or Entry/Birth into Christ
Stage of Childhood Purgative Stage of the Beginner
The Crisis of Puberty 2nd Conversion: Night of Senses
Stage of Adolescence—the teen years Illuminative Stage of the Proficient
The Crisis of Freedom/Independence
(college age)
3rd Conversion: Night of Spirit
Stage of Adulthood Unitive Stage of the Perfect

See also figure 1, which includes as well the grades of prayer appropriate to the three main stages of the interior life.

(click to enlarge)

Why is this important?
Truth—reality—are important for their own sake, but wise and prudent—and effective—spiritual guides and teachers who are about the task of “making disciples” need to make them as Jesus did. We need not look for stages or steps in psychology; we need not try to appeal to “enlightened self-interest” as salesmen, and motivational speakers, do. We need to be true to the truth. Jesus formed His Apostles in stages, by design and with intention. We can see this easily in the correspondence below:

Supernatural Life
Development of the interior, spiritual life of grace
Formation of the Apostles
Their developing life of grace
1st Conversion: Baptism or Entry/Birth into Christ 1st Conversion: They were called; they left all to follow Jesus.
Purgative Stage of the Beginner They listened, watched and learned from the miracle-worker teacher Jesus in His earthly ministry.
2nd Conversion: Night of Senses 2nd Conversion: They lost Him! A profound and passive purgation – and darkness – came upon them. The dark Night of the Passion and death of Jesus, and their own vulnerable weakness pierced them to the heart.
Illuminative Stage of the Proficient They learned, they were illuminated anew, now by the resurrected and glorified Lord Jesus Christ!
3rd Conversion: Night of Spirit 3rd Conversion: He ascended out of their sight, and company. Again, they were alone: a deeper Night, a deeper purgation came upon them.
Unitive Stage of the Perfect The promised Holy Spirit came upon them, and within them, with power from on high. Now they were as they were called to be: the light of the world – He in them, and they in Him.

When is a disciple ready to “make disciples”? When is a Christian ready to “witness” to his Christian faith? When is a Catholic ready to “defend the Faith”? These questions are important, and deserve wise and prudent reflection—with the wisdom and prudence given by the Spirit, and not that which is merely human. We cannot give what we do not have, but we are called to give that which God has given us to give to others, for the sake of His holy charity.

Is someone who has not successfully experienced the interior purgations of the Dark Night of the Senses—that is, a Beginner in the interior life—capable and ready to “make disciples”? The Night of Senses purifies and purges the soul of much “mercenary love.” Such self-interested love is love of God, and for His Church, and willingness to work His works, but with impure, self-interested motives. Mercenary love only loves for the good it brings for the self, and not for the pure love of God, because of who God is, and for His glory. Mercenary love is an impurity that dominates in the Purgative Stage. St. Catherine of Siena writes of “mercenary love,” as cited by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange:4

In her Dialogue [Ch. 60] St. Catherine of Siena speaks of this self-love, describing it as “the mercenary love of the imperfect,” of those who, without being conscious of it, serve God from self-interest, because they are attached to temporal or spiritual consolations, and who shed tears of self-pity when they are deprived of them.

It is a strange but not uncommon mixture of sincere love of God with an inordinate love of self. The soul loves God more than itself, otherwise it would not be in the state of grace, it would not possess charity; but it still loves itself with an inordinate love. It has not yet reached the stage of loving itself in God, and for His sake. Such a state of soul is neither white nor black; it is a light gray, in which there is more white than black. The soul is on the upward path, but it still has a tendency to slip downwards.

Beginners can be drawn to serve the Church, but their motives and depth of commitment are in need of purification. Such purification of heart ought to be the concern in the Purgative Stage, even though it cannot be deeply dealt with until the passive purgations that only God can effect. After we do what we must do, God can do what only He can do. God Himself can deal with these deeply rooted imperfections of self-love, in the passive purgations of the Dark Nights.

John of the Cross writes of much beautiful fruit of the first Dark Night, and entrance into the Illuminative Stage, including this:

11. Finally, insofar as these persons are purged of their sensory affections and appetites, they obtain freedom of spirit in which they acquire the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.

12. These aridities, then, make people walk with purity in the love of God. No longer are they moved to act by the delight and satisfaction they find in a work, as perhaps they were when they derived this from their deeds, but by the desire of pleasing God. They are neither presumptuous nor self-satisfied, as was their custom in the time of their prosperity, but fearful and disquieted about themselves, and lacking in any self-satisfaction.5

Speaking more generally of the spiritual changes and developments needed, but lacking in beginners, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange wrote that newly emerging in the second conversion, and continued in the Illuminative Stage of the Proficients, is:

… a greater abundance of light in contemplation, and in the work of the apostolate; by intense desires for the glory of God, and the salvation of souls, and by a greater facility in prayer. Not infrequently we find in the proficients the prayer of Quiet, in which the will is momentarily held captive by the love of God. This period is marked also by a great facility in doing works for God, such as teaching, directing, organizing, and the rest. This is to love God, not only with the whole heart, but with the whole soul, with the whole of one’s activities; but not yet with the whole strength, nor with the whole mind, because God has not yet achieved complete dominion in that higher region of the soul which we call the spirit.6

No one expects a child to assume the works and witness of an adult. Who sends a child into battle, in a real war? But many programs assume that any Christian (whether or not he is in some “purgative stage” of his spiritual life) can become a worker in the field of evangelization and a witness for Christ. Certainly, a child can be a witness for Christ! A child can be a holy saint, and can witness in his own beautiful way—but there is a difference between the witness of a spiritual child, still largely unformed in the Faith, and the witness of a spiritual adult, having a mature spiritual life. St. Paul wrote,

1Cor 3:1 But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.

1Cor 3:2 I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready,

1Cor 3:3 …for you are still of the flesh.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews had similar discernment for his readers:

Heb 5:11 About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.

Heb 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food;

Heb 5:13 For everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child.

Heb 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

Heb 6:1 Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ, and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…

No one expects a child to know with any surety what he “wants to be,” i.e., what his human gifts from God are. But some of these programs set about seeking to discover a Christian’s spiritual gifts—and, therefore, his/her place and part in the Body of Christ—wherever he is in his interior life. Activity of the Spirit does come forward, revealing such gifts and charisms, but experientially in the Illuminative Stage—after the active purgations of the Beginner, and after the second conversion and the passive purgations of a Dark Night of the Senses. Indeed, Christ, in the work of interior formation, accomplished in His Apostles, and told them specifically to wait for the empowerment of the Spirit before they set off in works for the Kingdom. He knew they were not yet ready to work; their formation had not yet matured to that point, not yet:

Act 1:4 And while staying with them, he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father,…

Act 1:8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Problem 2: We need adequate materials to build a renewal.
A substantive, living spiritual renewal in a Christian has “one thing necessary”— a healthy and growing interior life of grace—an interior life that is recognized and understood as intended by God to grow through three distinct stages into maturation. That precious interior life must be guarded and nurtured, kept close to the heart of Mother Church, and fed with divine grace and the living and holy Word of God, Holy Scripture. That interior life must be led out of, and away from, the world, and the self, and the devil in zealous purgations of all opposed to the life of God. Augustine wrote:7

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly, by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly, by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.

The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” [Ps. 3: 3] In the one, the princes, and the nations it subdues, are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.”[Ps. 18:1]

Renewal will never come if we seek the common but deadly aberration of a supposed compromise between the two cities! They cannot coexist in the soul of man; they are opposed to one another: one will fall; one will rise. “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” the Lord said. All are called to holiness, and the perfection of charity—and holiness cannot be attained, charity cannot be perfected, God cannot be served with one’s whole heart and mind and soul and strength—if one avoids the one path to Christ, and the dark nights of holy purgation, and the power of the Holy Spirit that that one authentic path brings, through its three stages.

Problem 3: Renewal cannot come and remain in a house built upon sand.
Look carefully at any “renewal” plan that claims less than total commitment to Christ and His Truth. Those He called, left all, and followed Him! At the Cross, they came to know their own cowardice, and their pusillanimity, and their love of themselves: their mercenary discipleship. Grace is free, but it is not cheap: it costs the whole world, but brings the highest heavens. Count the cost! Run from any book or plan that ends up exalting you and “moderating” God! All – ALL – is found in Him. Remain in Him, in the beginning, and in the darkness, and in the holy Light of the promised Spirit! He will shepherd you home.

  1. Some examples: Rediscover Catholicism (dynamiccatholic.com), Alpha Catholic (alphausa.org/catholic), ChristLife (christlife.org), Forming Intentional Disciples (siena.org), Evangelical Catholic (evangelicalcatholic.org), Disciples in Mission (disciplesinmission.com), From Maintenance to Mission (book: Rivers, Robert S., CSP. From Maintenance to Mission: Evangelization and the Revitalization of the Parish. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005) …
  2. An excellent teacher for this spiritual theology is Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. in his two-volume Three Ages of the Interior Life. And see for example St. Thomas, Summa, IIa IIae, Q.24, a.9; St. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Love of God, ch XV, 1; St. John of the Cross, Dark Night; etc. I discuss all of this at an introductory level in my book The Ordinary Path to Holiness.
  3. Thomas Aquinas – Summa – IIa, IIae, Ques.24, art. 9
  4. The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P, Ch 2, “What our second conversion ought to be.”
  5. Dark Night, John of the Cross, Bk 1, Ch 13
  6. The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.; Ch 5 : Characteristics of the Three Stages of the Spiritual Life: Proficients.
  7. The City of God — Book XIV, Chapter 28—Of the Nature of the Two Cities, the Earthly and the Heavenly.
R. Thomas Richard, PhD About R. Thomas Richard, PhD

R. Thomas Richard, PhD, together with his wife, currently offers parish presentations and adult formation opportunities. He has served as religious formation director for parishes, director of lay ministry and deacon formation at the diocesan level, and retreat director. A former teacher, engineer, Protestant minister, and missionary, he has earned graduate degrees in Catholic theology and ministry, Protestant ministry, and physics. He is the author of several books in Catholic spirituality, which are described on his website, www.renewthechurch.com.


  1. Without the extraordinary manifestations of the charismata and pneumatika, the Church will lack the fullness that Jesus intended for Her, as demonstrated in the supernatural empowerment of Pentecost.

    As St.John Paul II said, the charismatic and institutional are co-essential to the Church. Without both, it’s incomplete, and will continue to tread water.

    The Church is a social and philosophical club without “demonstration in the power of the Spirit,” without signs, wonders and miracles to confirm its message – see Mark 16:18.

    • And yet the abiding power of the Holy Spirit is sent to the Church – even though widely missed, among so many. As the essay says,
      “Activity of the Spirit does come forward, revealing such gifts and charisms, but experientially in the Illuminative Stage—after the active purgations of the Beginner, and after the second conversion and the passive purgations of a Dark Night of the Senses. ”

      Many – many – in the Church have no knowledge of this divinely intended growth and maturation in the life of grace, the interior life. As a result, many do not grow – and have no sense that they could and ought to grow – and very, very few have ever told them anything of the potency of God, in those who seek Him no matter the cost.

      • Hi Thomas, thanks for your reply. Just to make sure I understand you correctly, are you saying that the charismata and pneumatika that Paul speaks of, particularly in 1 Corinthians, are experienced only when one makes sufficient progress in personal sanctification and the interior life of grace?

        If so, I feel that conflicts with the activity of the Holy Spirit as attested by Scripture, particularly the Acts of the Apostles, specifically the Baptism of the Holy Spirit which is presented as a free gift of grace for those who positively receive the Good News. After all, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, in contrast to John’s baptism.

        Acts describes the Spirit being given through the laying of the hands of the apostles. Acts 8:15 and Acts 10:34 clearly link baptism and positive reception of the Good News with Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

        Ephesians 1:14 describes the reception of the Holy Spirit as a sort of “down payment” or “first installment” of God’s full life. Moreover, the Catechism presents Confirmation as the perpetuation of the Pentecostal experience – which I’m sure many would admit doesn’t seem to happen.

        It seems that the Baptism in the Holy Spirit experience and the pneumatika and charismata are linked to sacramental action rather than progress in the spiritual path.

      • Hello Job – My understanding is this: the gifts/charisms Paul describes in 1 Cor 12 must be distinguished from the gifts of the Spirit Isaiah describes in Isa 11:2-3. The charisms are given to members of the Body for the good of the Body, and are not directly related to the sanctification of the member who receives the gift(s), nor to his advancement or lack of it on the path of holiness.

        In contrast, the Isaian gifts are given in Baptism, in potency, and may come into activity and manifestation in the person by actual grace of the Spirit. Actual graces bring forth the manifestation of these gifts – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – and their activations are directly related to the sanctification and holiness of the person.

        Jordan Aumann (among others, of course), says this of the disctintion in his “Spiritual Theology”:
        “In his first letter to the Corinthians (12:4-6), St. Paul states that there are diverse gifts of God, but that God is one in himself. All that we have received in both the natural and the supernatural order we have received from God, so that we could speak of all these things as graces gratis datae. But theologians reserve the term graces gratis datae for a special type of graces called charisms.

        “Unlike the grace gratum faciens (habitual or actual graces) a grace gratis data has as its immediate purpose not the sanctification of the one who receives it, but the spiritual benefit of others. It is called gratis data not only because it is above the natural power of man but also because it is something outside the realm of personal merit.”

  2. It seems that the Baptism in the Holy Spirit experience and the pneumatika and charismata are linked to sacramental action rather than exclusively to progress in the spiritual path, which seems to correspond better with the concept of receiving the Spirit as a gift of grace rather than something that’s earned or generated through strenuous spiritual effort.

  3. Thanks for clarifying the different types of gifts and for introducing me to the work of Fr. Aumann. His Spiritual Theology seems to be a real powerhouse.

    My initial point was that without an abiding sense and experience of the supernatural Christianity is just a set of rituals and high ideals. Acts of the Apostles clearly show that Jesus’ mission was to win us the Holy Spirit, and to clothe us with “power from on high.” When in Ephesus, Paul notices that there’s something missing in the community there, so he prays and they receive the Holy Spirit and consequently speak in tongues and prophesy. (Acts 19) They end up having the supernatural experience that’s intended to be their spiritual patrimony by virtue of Jesus’ Ascension. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:20 – “The Kingdom of God consists not in words but in power.” The Greek term is dynamis, and it’s translated into power, miracles, signs and wonders in other passages.

    While citizens of the Kingdom of God will inevitably have to face suffering and affliction, they now have the support of the Holy Spirit in a supernatural fashion, both ordinary and extraordinary.

    And as we see in Acts, the extraordinary manifestations are intended to be an instantaneous part of the baptismal experience. Unfortunately, none of this happens in adult baptisms or youth confirmations.

    Christianity without miracles, signs, powers, wonders is not Christianity in its fullness; it lacks plenary potency and power.

    Christianity without the supernatural will just be an inert system of ideas. It saddens and mystifies me why the miracles and extraordinary powers that were part of the early apostolic community are no longer veritably present.

    So related back to the main point of your article – those programs that you list fail because they don’t bring people into direct, real contact with the divine, in either ordinary or extraordinary ways.


    • Hello again Zob. I believe you have cast light upon the center of the issue, in your remark “So related back to the main point of your article – those programs that you list fail because they don’t bring people into direct, real contact with the divine, in either ordinary or extraordinary ways.”

      This is the crux of the matter: Christ brought the divine from heaven to the earth, indeed into humanity itself. He brought, in Himself, the union of the supernatural – the divine – with the natural – the human. When religion fails to do this, it fails the purpose of religion. When a Catholic program, or parish, or movement, fails to enable communion with the divine, what good is it? When Catholic “spiritual” leaders or programs fail to (or worse, cannot) enable true encounter with God, what good do they serve?

      The immense irony is that the Catholic Church has been entrusted by God with the fullness of His holy revelation of divine Truth! And yet we have Catholics going hungry. And yet we have Catholic “spiritual” leaders, foraging for food in strange lands:

      Let my eyes stream with tears
      day and night, without rest,
      Over the great destruction which overwhelms
      the virgin daughter of my people,
      over her incurable wound.
      If I walk out into the field,
      look! those slain by the sword;
      If I enter the city,
      look! those consumed by hunger.
      Even the prophet and the priest
      forage in a land they know not.

  4. Your initial questions: What is needed in these times to ignite a “new evangelization” that will return zeal and vigor to our Catholic parishes and dioceses?

    I would say the same thing as was needed from the beginning – preaching, teaching, power (signs, miracles, wonders).

    Just as Paul says in Romans 15: 18-19: “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obedience by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, and by the power of the Spirit of God.”

    Unfortunately, the “power of signs and wonders” is missing. And no one seems to want to acknowledge it.